“Come home, America,” McGovern pled in that 1972 campaign. “Come home from the wilderness of needless war and excessive militarism.” ~Bill Kauffman, The American Conservative
My appreciation for George McGovern’s patriotic antiwar views really began when I first saw the man come out in opposition to the bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999. As many of you may have guessed, and as I have explained before, the bombing of Yugoslavia was the occasion when I saw the light, so to speak, on questions of American foreign policy, so I have always remembered George McGovern well for his rejection of a war that was embraced by almost all of the Democrats who today want us out of Iraq. In 1999, McGovern was taking up the antiwar role (again) among Democrats that paleoconservatives have had on the right. He was right in 1999 when The New Republic, the DLC and all its little minions were horribly, inexcusably wrong. He played the same role in 2002-03 before the invasion of Iraq. Unlike a largely spineless Democratic opposition, McGovern opposed the attack on Iraq as well. That is who McGovern was in my lifetime, and hearing people talk about Lamont bringing back the “party of McGovern” is music to my ears. If we had more McGoverns of the kind I saw in 1999 and 2002-03, we would not wrongfully attacked two countries and killed tens of thousands of people, and thousands of American soldiers would still be alive and uninjured who are now dead and badly wounded. When you mock McGovern for his opposition to Vietnam, you also mock his opposition to these wars that have no justification.
The sudden rediscovery of McGovern by GOP talking heads is remarkable. For people who don’t like Iraq-Vietnam comparisons, and who have mocked antiwar folks everytime we have mentioned certain similarities between the two conflicts, they certainly are keen to tap into the old resentment against opposition to the Vietnam War. Apparently Iraq isn’t Vietnam, but opposing the Iraq war is identical to opposing Vietnam. Do they really want to refight the old argument about Vietnam on its merits? I doubt it. The War Party doesn’t win arguments on the merits–they insult, cajole, harrass and otherwise intimidate. Losing an election? Cook up a caricature of some crazed left-wing peacenik and use it to smear your opponent–that’s their answer.
Back in 1999, there were more Republicans willing to oppose yet another Clinton bombing campaign, and Pat Buchanan distinguished himself brilliantly as the most prominent voice on the right condemning the war (it was for this reason above all that I voted for him in 2000), but there were relatively few conservative pundits or writers outside the confines of Chronicles who could summon up a rationale for why it was profoundly and deeply wrong. Oh, you could find realists on every block who didn’t understand how this was in our strategic interest, and they were right about that–it was a monumentally stupid war in that respect–but many of these people were, shall we say, less than concerned about the human toll of one of our few truly, completely unprovoked wars of aggression. In 1999, McGovern did not generally speak in strategic terms–and perhaps this was always the man’s weakness as a professional politician–but spoke instead in terms of the immorality of what the government was doing to Yugoslavia. That earned my respect, and it is disgusting to me that apologists for this war have the gall to use his name as if it were some kind of insult. They should be so lucky in their lives as to be compared to George McGovern when it comes to speaking out against a grave wrong in the face of a hostile majority.
I’ll close with a few selections from Bill Kauffman’s article on George McGovern for The American Conservative. The first selection gives you a sense of how far removed from reality is the parody of McGovern as far-leftist:
George McGovern had convictions; like Barry Goldwater in 1964, he stood for a set of ideals rooted in the American past. He spoke of open government, peace, the defense of the individual and the community against corporate power, a Congress that reasserts the power to declare war. After Eagleton’s petulant departure, McGovern chose as his veep the undervalued Sargent Shriver, founding member of the America First Committee, a pro-life Catholic who admired Dorothy Day.
Needless to say, the people who still actively despise George McGovern would definitely despise America First and Dorothy Day and they would positively love presidential usurpation of Congressional authority to declare war and the ever-greater expansion of corporations at the expense of individuals and communities. Perhaps this sort of autocratic corporationism plays in some parts of the country, but it is profoundly out of sync with our national traditions, it has devastated the institutions of the Republic and it is hostile to the welfare of commonwealth.
The second selection gives a real sense of the decency and sanity of the man himself:
This other George McGovern was a bomber pilot who flew 35 B-24 missions in the Dakota Queen, named after his wife, Eleanor Stegeberg of Woonsocket, South Dakota, whom he had courted at the Mitchell Roller Rink. He grew up in and remains a congregant of the First United Methodist Church of Mitchell; he knows by heart the “old hymns” and sings them aloud “with the gusto of those devout congregations that shaped my life so many years ago.” This other George McGovern is a lifelong St. Louis Cardinals fan and member in good standing of the Stan Musial Society. He lives most of the year in Mitchell, his hometown, and says, “There is a wholesomeness about life in a rural state that is a meaningful factor. It doesn’t guarantee you are going to be a good guy simply because you grow up in an agricultural area, but I think the chances of it are better, because of the sense of well-being, the confidence in the decency of life that comes with working not only with the land but also with the kinds of people who live on the land. Life tends to be more authentic and less artificial than in urban areas. You have a sense of belonging to a community. You’re closer to nature and you see the changing seasons.”
This George McGovern, dyed deeply in the American grain, is a hell of a lot more interesting than the burlesque that was framed by his neocon critics.
Mr. Kauffman concludes his article with a very relevant point:
At 83, George McGovern remains a voice for peace and freedom in a party that looks ready to nominate the militaristic schoolmarm Hillary Clinton as its next standard-bearer. Oh, how the Democrats could use a bracing shot of McGovernism.
Perhaps what horrifies the GOP and Democratic vultures (calling them hawks lends them a dignity I am starting to think they don’t deserve) most is that, when offered a real alternative to militarism and imperialism, the American people will embrace the alternative faster than you can say “benevolent global hegemony.” The danger is not the implosion of the Democratic Party or any of the other bogeys that have been conjured up, but that for a moment there is the possibility of creating a different sort of foreign policy. Of course, it won’t be radically different, and it won’t be the kind of foreign policy that I would ideally prefer, but the fact that it is at all different from the mindless consensus that has gathered around the Iraq war is worth taking seriously.